As letters go, they aren’t exactly the stuff of literature. One from 1959 asks that the recipient phone Con Edison and complain about an unusually high electric bill ($54.92). Another requests a shipment of beloved New York cigars because of apparent dissatisfaction with the options available in Europe. At least one, written from the Regina-Palast Hotel in Munich, Room 551, starts to provide a hint of the sender.
“Looks like the picture won’t be finished on time,” the letter explains. “It rains every day and we can’t find 2 midgets, so it looks like I’ll be here at least 2 more weeks.”
The letters, along with 210 vintage black-and-white photographic prints, were found in 2003 in a zebra-stripe trunk that was bought at a yard sale in Kentucky by two Indiana women who were on their way back from a camping trip. One of the women simply liked the look of the trunk, and when she found old clothes, yellowed papers and pictures inside, she thought about throwing the contents away.
But she took them instead to an Indianapolis rare-documents dealer. And this week the Indianapolis Museum of Art plans to announce that it has acquired a trove of work and correspondence by Weegee, the crepuscular, stogie-smoking New York photographer whose visceral pictures became a template not only for artists like Diane Arbus but also for much of the uncomfortably close tabloid imagery that exists today. The museum described the acquisition as a partial gift and partial purchase from the dealer.
The trunk is assumed to have once been the possession of Wilma Wilcox, a social worker who was Weegee’s companion and lived with him from 1957 until his death in 1968. Upon her death in 1993, she bequeathed the bulk of his work — thousands of prints and negatives — to the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. How the trunk full of prints and 62 letters to Ms. Wilcox from Weegee (born Usher Fellig in what is now Ukraine, and later known as Arthur Fellig) ended up in Kentucky is a mystery that neither the Indianapolis Museum nor the dealer, Steve H. Nowlin, has solved.
“We’re just lucky that it all survived,” said Martin Krause, the museum’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs. “The woman who found them thought maybe these were just old family snapshots or something — though how you could mistake a Weegee for a family photograph, I don’t know.”
The size of the newly discovered collection pales in comparison with the holdings of the International Center of Photography, and Mr. Krause said that no previously unknown work had been found among the prints. But for a museum that began collecting photography seriously only 15 years ago, the work is an important addition — especially because the trunk contained a surprisingly broad survey of Weegee’s career, with the only weak spot being fewer prints from his early years of crime and murder-scene coverage in the 1930s.
Maxwell Anderson, the museum’s director, said the institution’s young collection has notable 19th-century work and a concentration of contemporary photography. “So this will serve as a great bridge between those traditions,” he said, adding, of the discovery of the prints and letters, that it was “like the last keystroke of a life of accidental purpose.”
Weegee — whose nickname, according to one story he told, was a transliteration of Ouija, a reference to his almost psychic ability to find a fresh crime scene — was the archetype of a tabloid photographer, working mostly at night in the lower-rent parts of New York City.
“People who work in the daytime are suckers,” he once said. Before the publication of his first book, “Naked City,” made him famous in 1945, he lived in a cheap room near police headquarters and was said to be so accustomed to working on the run that he once developed a picture of a prizefight in a subway motorman’s cab while rushing back to a newspaper office.
As his star rose in the 1950s and 1960s, he began to travel extensively, make experimental films and worked for other directors, some as illustrious as Stanley Kubrick, for whom he served as a consultant during the filming of “Dr. Strangelove.”
But as many of the newly discovered letters to Ms. Wilcox show, much of his film career was on a lower plane. The letter from Munich refers to his work on a 1958 quasi-documentary called “Windjammer,” the story of an epic sea journey filmed in something called Cinemiracle, a short-lived widescreen format. (In fact, very short-lived: “Windjammer” was the only movie to be shot with that method.) Given Weegee’s influence on Arbus, Andy Warhol and even contemporary photographers, Mr. Krause said the museum was extremely lucky to come into such a body of work all at once. But he added that the heavily flashed, high-contrast pictures — of corpses, movie-house lovers, jazz clubs, celebrities, bums and oddball street scenes — were also simply as entertaining as the man who took them.
“This gives our collection a certain personality,” he said. “And what a personality to get.”